Media coverage over this past weekend has raised some interesting questions. News of a conference at Trinity College Dublin, reports allegations of "cowardice" within the Irish episcopate and "fundamental dysfunction" within seminaries. Elsewhere, video footage has been broadcast seemingly reporting the declaration of Pope Francis as a heretic, the See of Rome sede vacante and the election of another candidate by proclamation. It may be thought that the former is not precisely what St John Henry Newman had in mind when penning his "Idea of University".
The latter may be thought redolent of the annals of Avignon.
However, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that whilst Trinity College is in name dedicated to the most Holy Trinity, for the majority of its history, it has served as a cradle to protestantism; founded by Elizabeth 1 for this purpose.
Freedom of expression is, of course, vital in any society. The jurisprudence generated by Art 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights affirms that it may extend to the right to shock and offend. Until recently, this may have been considered a licence of equal application. However, with the more recent societal classification of various forms of 'hate speech', the equality of this freedom requires closer scrutiny. By way of example, it might be thought informative to posit the question: why are some forms of sexual expression deserving of protection and respect, whilst celibacy is not? The apparent double-standard is more starkly revealed when one considers the depiction of the two states of life: celibacy and marriage. Both represent freely assumed and adopted choices. Yet, there will be those who will immediately respond with a rebuttal that celibacy is not optional; but mandatory. However, such a response is itself wrong-headed. The freedom to present for ordination - like the freedom to enter into marriage- is dependent upon choice. The fact that celibacy is a consequence of that choice does not render the decision any less free. Rather, like the decision to enter into marriage, it requires careful deliberation and consideration before the decision is made. Further, celibacy is not a restriction but a liberty. It is the means by which authentic priesthood may be lived out. It has a parallel in the irreplaceable need for exclusivity in marriage. Despite this, when we hear of priests who have failed in their obligations, it is invariably in the context of demands for the abolition of celibacy itself. There has, to date at least, been no similar call for the abolition of marriage on account of marital infidelity. To the contrary, the legal concept of marriage has been extended to enable those in non-heterosexual relations to gain access to this same state recognition.
In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer provides a window into the society of his day. His work provides a platform for those who, free of any form of restraint, or lack of confidence, hold forth on various pressing social matters. In the prologue attributed to her, The Wife of Bath declares:
"[E]xperience though no written authority, is in the world, enough for me to speak of the woes that lie in marriage..."
She continues to recite the basis of her authority: the fact she had been married on 5 occasions. In our present times, the Wife of Bath would undoubtedly find a ready audience. However, as readers of Chaucer will know, at the heart of her narrative lies a deep dissatisfaction and regret. What may be termed a recognition that not only her hopes had been dashed but also that despite her repeated experiences, she continued to make the same errors of judgment.
In the interests of balance, it must also be noted that those who possess numerous qualifications of a written kind (Doctorates or otherwise) may nonetheless also demonstrate errors of judgment. After all, the conferral of such qualifications represent nothing more than a recognition of participation in a process of learning. They demonstrate a preparedness to subject one's thoughts and deliberations to the demands of scientific rigour and academic integrity. Whether such qualifications take the form of a licence, diploma, masters degree, or doctorate, they are not an end to themselves. Nor do they confer immunity from error or contradiction. Where those qualifications emanate from and/or intended for service within the Church, they represent a form of stewardship; entrusting to the candidate a profound responsibility.
One son of the Church who well understood this responsibility was St Charles Borromeo. Drawn from a prestigious and noble family, he chose the path of the Church and proved himself well able to introduce and maintain lasting reforms. At his last synod, he declared "we are all morally weak" and offered guidance as to how we might go "from strength to strength". He observed:
"Is your duty preaching and teaching? Concentrate carefully on what is essential to fulfil that office fittingly. Make sure in the first place that your life and conduct are sermons in themselves. Do not give people cause to purse their lips and shake their heads ...since they have heard you before, preaching one thing, then seen you doing the exact opposite..."
Whilst directed at priests, this exhortation has equal application to all within the Church. It is a reminder of the need for personal integrity as an intrinsic component of authentic witness. However, contrary to popular misconception, personal integrity is not about claiming to be right, but the search for Truth. Truth is immutable. It is not the product of personal preference. Nor is it pliable. Nor can it be said that there are gradations of Truth. Something is true or it is not. How then does this relate to the freedom of expression which the Church recognises?
The recognition of Truth as both immutable and eternal must necessarily inform our actions and shape the responsibilities to which we are all subject. The mystical body of the Church is not reducible to some species of club, or association in which those who shout loudest hold sway. Nor is the authority with which the Church is entrusted to be compared with some form of political authority which is dependent upon a mandate from the people. But what of the rights of the individual?
The rights of the individual members of the faithful are intended to reflect the universal call to holiness and the fulfilment of the human vocation through participation in the Church, as the people of God. All societies declare and subscribe to certain irreducible values upon which the authenticity and integrity of the community depends. Within the people of God, one such value is the notion of the common good. It is encapsulated within what is and remains the first law of the Church: the salvation of souls (salus animarum). This reality requires nothing more nor less than we prioritise Christ as The Way, The Truth and the Life. This is the Christ of the Scriptures; not some 21st Century reconstruction of what we might prefer Him to be; less challenging, less demanding of us. This is no easy task. It requires that we lay aside personal ambition and the desire to be 'right' and instead cultivate a true sense of obedience and humility. To paraphrase Charles Borromeo: it is only through the cultivation of both qualities that we have any prospect of bringing forth Christ in ourselves and in others. We could do worse than model ourselves upon the example of St Charles Borromeo, himself the holder of several doctorates, as one who sought wisdom over knowledge and Christ over self.
Our lady Seat of Wisdom- pray for us.